Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, a review

As the summer begins to draw to a close and the cooling night air brings with it thoughts of fall and of Halloween, inevitably I’m stricken with the horror itch. So this past weekend I fed my cravings and read Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, a horror author with whom I had yet to be acquainted.

I picked up Dark Harvest a while back based on some glowing cover blurbs, including the fact that it won a Bram Stoker Award for best long horror fiction of 2006. When I closed the cover after two brief sessions—at 170 pages Dark Harvest is more novella than novel—I was left with mixed sensations. There was some very good stuff in Dark Harvest, but other parts of the work fell flat, at least for me.

Dark Harvest takes place in an unnamed western town and concerns the events of a single Halloween night in 1963. For as long as anyone can remember the town has followed a strange, bloodthirsty ritual—every boy between the ages of sixteen and nineteen gets locked up for five straight days heading up to Halloween. The group is then turned loose on the streets with a cache of wicked weapons, including baseball bats, knives, and steel pipes. Their mission is to hunt down and kill the Halloween Boy, a pumpkin-headed monster from legend. The “winner” who claims the kill gets to leave the town's stifling confines. No one else is permitted to leave the town, ever.

But on this night in 1963, 16-year-old Pete McCormick discovers that all is not what it seems. The game is rigged. He vows to buck the tradition.

So on to what I liked and didn’t like. And warning, this review will contain some spoilers.

The bad
Dark Harvest had the feeling of a good short story padded out to novel length. It’s a great concept that would have been superb in 40 or 50 pages, but doesn’t quite work as a full-fledged novel.

For example, there’s no backstory or reason given why this strange ritual exists. Stephen King’s Children of the Corn did this sort of thing far better, and in fewer pages. And not only are we never given a reason for the existence of nor the ramifications of said bloody ritual, but we’re also never told how such an insulated town could exist. Seriously, no one is ever permitted to leave this town, ever, except for one lucky boy each year? And we’re supposed to believe this could happen, even in an isolated Midwestern town in 1963? I bought the scenario of Children of the Corn (in which every adult in town was slaughtered, and the only ones left were children indoctrinated into the cult of the corn god). I just couldn’t buy the events of Dark Harvest.

I also had a few problems with the narration. Partridge inserts the second person (“you”) voice into the text, but not consistently, and when he does it took me out of the flow of the novel. For example, “You” (the reader) are one of the bodies buried in the cornfield. If by “you” he means that I am one of the boys unable to escape conformity and small town existence and small worries, yes, I suppose, that could be me. But it comes across as “you, the reader, were one of the boys taken out into a cornfield and shot.” Really, I was?

More regrettably, the characters in Dark Harvest do not feel three dimensional. The teenage boy who was the October Boy to me seemed no different than McCormick, for example. Again, another 100 pages of character and plot development would have made Dark Harvest into a superb novel rather than a padded-out short story.

The good
So why do I still recommend Dark Harvest (with the above reservations)? For one thing the writing is sharp, concise, and strong. Partridge works with brevity and skill and a relentless energy that makes reading the novel a pleasure and a breeze.

For all its failings of believability, Dark Harvest works as a coming of age story. It’s a tale about how becoming an adult is more than just the passing of some arbitrary age (say, 21 or 25). Adults at some point must break from teenage groupthink, take a stand, question authority, and do right by their children by setting a good example (sadly, many of them don’t). Dark Harvest is also archetypal and borderline allegorical and this element also worked in its favor. For example, the long black road out of town is life, and leads to a barrier called The Line. The Line is difficult to cross. Most people never try to cross the Line, and the few that do are pursued at every turn by peers and authority figures that want to knock them down a peg.

Although it’s sharply critical of small-town conformity, Dark Harvest is also an elegy to childhood and lost innocence. My favorite scene is when the October Boy returns to his abandoned home and engages in a silent reverie while staring at his kitchen table. The past is gone and there are no second chances to reclaim a lost childhood, or speak words to loved ones that should have been said:

Jim’s misshapen fingers scrape across the rough-hewn table. It’s not a good table. It sits kind of cockeyed, and dinner peas escaping a child’s fork have been known to roll off the side like ships sailing off the edge of a flat earth. That’s why nobody bothered to steal the thing when the house was abandoned, and Jim’s glad of that. Because this is the table where he sat with his mother and father and little brother as the days faded to evenings for years and years and years. And this is the table where he thought many things, and a few of them made the trip from brain to mouth and found the ears of those other people who shared the table, but many of them didn’t. For one reason or another, many of his thoughts never left him at all.

In short, if you turn off your critical thinking and read it as a dark fable, Dark Harvest works. If you don’t dwell on the why or how of the ritual of the Halloween Boy and embrace your love of the mayhem and wildness of the dark side of Halloween you’ll be rewarded. And your appetite for fall will be whetted.


Anonymous said...

hey, I hope you excuse the offtopic... have you read Duma key by Stephen King now? if not, you must, is the best novel of Stephen King since Pet sematary in 1983

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Francisco, I have not read Duma Key. The last five books by King that I read left me cold (Dreamcatcher and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon were bad, Cell started well but ended poorly, and Desperation and Bag of Bones were okay, but not as good as his stuff circa 1974-88).

But if Duma Key is his best since Pet Sematary (which I loved) I'm willing to try it.

Tam said...

Thank you for this article! I just finished reading Dark Harvest this morning and was left with a lot of questions, the most important being why the town carried out this yearly ritual to begin with! I was surprised that Partridge did not address that plot hole, and finished the book unsatisfied and disappointed. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who noticed it.

Brian Murphy said...

Tam: No problem, thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you liked the review.